Despite the fact that of the two popular music biopics currently on release, NOWHERE BOY clearly has the stronger cinematic credentials, we went to see SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL, the Ian Dury story as written by actor-turned-scenarist Paul Viragh and directed by TV helmer Matt Whitecross. Possibly because Fiona likes Ian Dury a lot, and possibly because she likes Andy Serkis, who plays Ian Dury, a lot.
What a remarkable figure Dury was: his music combines punk, funk and music hall, and he comes over on stage as a sort of sweary Essex Noel Coward, filtered through the wraith of Gene Vincent. Bizarre. And then there’s the wastage of half his body, caused by polio, giving him a marked limp. “On stage I try to sort of hover,” he says in the movie. “You’re putting that on,” someone once told him. “I thought I was trying to cover it up,” he replied.
The film is pretty creditable in many ways — the high-water mark for this kind of thing was set most recently by CONTROL, whose familiar structure of struggle, success and dissolution is echoed unavoidably in S&D&R&R, but the stylistic approach couldn’t be more different. In the film’s zanier scenes, deploying animation designed by the artist Peter Blake, and in its not-quite chronological structure, the movie is perhaps more influenced by 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (which also featured Serkis), although it substitutes music video japery for the more interesting cod-Brechtian antics of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s witty script. While Michael Winterbottom apparently had no clue how to use the Factory Records music in that film, Whitecross does at least find room to let Dury’s songs register, via sustained concert sequences and linking montages. The concerts, though ridiculously hyped-up in their cutting, are effective, and provide a semi-fantastical framing structure whereby Dury appears to introduce and wrap up the movie, but the montages reveal a certain desperation to be interesting, which shouldn’t be a problem with such a colourful central character.
The film is a lot like the trailer, hectic and eager-to-please but with something interesting oozing through. Except the trailer leaves out a lot of the best bits for censorship reasons.
Serkis as Dury holds the movie together, more or less overcoming a central indecision in the script — is this Dury’s story or his son’s? It’s a very effective impersonation of Dury’s singing, his manner, his disability (Dury is an almost unique example of a disabled pop star), his charm and his self-destructiveness. Dury’s main musical collaborator, Chas Jankel, produced the film’s soundtrack and reported that working with Serkis was liking attending a seance.
Supporting cast is very fine, with young Bill Milner impressive as Dury’s son (a strange effect is created by the fact that Dury’s kids never seem to age, but why let that bother us?) and Toby Jones enjoyably snarling as an underwritten villain. The women in Dury’s life present a problem, falling into the same stereotypes as those in CONTROL, long-suffering wife and fun, faintly annoying girlfriend. One has our sympathy but we don’t especially want to hang out with her when the fun is elsewhere, the other can’t really hope for sympathy and is too much of a hanger-on to be compelling on any other level. The problem is endemic to the material: philandering musicians write uninteresting roles for the women in their lives. Still, that’s no excuse to show Olivia Williams hurling crockery at her husband, a wretched cliché forty years ago, and something unworthy of inclusion in the film even if it happened. Important note to filmmakers everywhere: just because something happened, that’s no reason to put it in a film. Or as Dury himself says, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
The biggest success is the consistently entertaining dialogue — at least as long as Dury is around — a lot of Dury’s witticisms are hoary old jokes, but he has an endless supply of them and no shame about trotting them out whether the situation demands it or not. His joy in the English language is evoked in a scene where he trades synonyms for “penis” with his son (although, I note sadly, there is no English synonym for “synonym”), but really illustrated by the songs themselves.
I was pleased to find a couple of my students at the same screening, and even more pleased to learn that at least one, the excellent Oliver, was already a fan. When Dury died ten years ago the student I mentioned it to had never heard of him. Progress!
Movie lovers can see the real Dury in THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER and PIRATES.